One late spring evening in 2015, I found myself curled up in a recliner at my father’s bedside watching It’s a Wonderful Life. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it is the classic Christmas story of a man named George Bailey. He loses the meaning in his life and then finds it again through the help of his guardian angel (Clarence), the steadfastness of his wife (Mary), and the lasting friendships within his small town of Bedford Falls.
For my dad and me, this off-season viewing – with the windows open to the spring breeze and the crickets chirping outside – had a much deeper meaning. Dad was just two days from death, and the Jimmy Stewart classic was one of his favorites. Though his eyes were closed, I knew he knew the voices of George and Mary Bailey, Zuzu, and Mr. Potter nearly as well as he knew those of his own family.
Gratitude Isn’t a Feeling (Thankfully)
Years earlier, as an angsty teenager, I would roll my eyes when the classic would return to television at Christmastime and my dad would insist that we stop channel-surfing and watch It’s a Wonderful Life to the very, very “Hark-the-Herald-Angels-Sing” end. I didn’t understand why that film meant so much to him. That is to say, I didn’t understand until I watched him carry the crosses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and I started to see in him a little of what I saw in George Bailey: a sacrificial heart who gave to others and perhaps wondered at times what the meaning was in the life he lived. Perhaps he asked, like George, why certain parts of life were so very hard. Maybe he, too, asked, “What have I to be grateful for?”
In a particular way this time of year, this question about gratitude can be a difficult one to ask, and even more difficult to answer. Sometimes it feels next to impossible to acknowledge the things for which we are grateful when harder things rise up and seem to bowl us over with their intensity.
Our hearts tend to beat in sync with George Bailey’s. His burden in the film was financial, but it could have just as easily been our crosses of infertility, our losses of loved ones, our marital strains, our children separated from the Church, our mental and physical illnesses, our overwork, our underwork, our longing for our vocation, and our broken relationships (not to mention the things that break our hearts anytime we simply open the newspaper).
It’s hard to be grateful.
As I approach 2018, a full 2½ years after my Dad’s death, I’m still aware of this struggle for gratitude. Tears come to my eyes when I take note of the “fingerprints” he has left on my childhood home – like the coat hooks at our front entryway that he made for his grandchildren before his memory began to fail, or his work bench in the basement still cluttered with varnishes and saws and nails for every job under the sun. Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful when I feel that loss so acutely. If I’m being honest, sometimes I’m really sad about entering into another new year without him. I believe in heaven and I love our God. I have faith that my dad is interceding for me and my family from heaven, and yet I still wish he was here with me. It’s that simple.
Ending with Gratitude
So in the midst of the sadnesses that all of us experience in one way or another, what can we do to honor the year with gratitude?
Acknowledge the small blessings.
Take a moment to write down at least one thing you are grateful for as you enter 2018. It doesn’t have to be big. It’s easy to forget the small things in life when you are waiting on some big change in life, but our God is a God of small things: Who showed you kindness this Christmas? What song at the Christmas Mass gave you the most peace? What is one beautiful memory you have from all of 2017?
In my first Christmas after my dad’s death, I didn’t feel like anyone could possibly understand my grief. My one gratitude was found at midnight Mass when we sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. The third verse made me weep:
“Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings:
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth…”
I had never paid any attention to anything beyond the first or second verse, but it was as though verse three was meant for me! It was our Lord’s way of saying, “I came, Karen, that you might know that your dad’s death is not the end.” It didn’t make my hurt go away, but it did make it easier to bear. Verse three was one thing I could look back on and be so grateful for.
Be honest about your hurt.
A friend of mine acknowledged on Facebook recently that 2017 “had not been his favorite.” Acknowledging a hard patch in your life doesn’t mean that you are ungrateful or unfaithful. Sometimes the ugly and the beautiful go hand in hand – just look at the Cross! My dad taught me that sometimes the greatest of gifts come in the most unexpected of places. I’m grateful I got to curl up next to his bedside and watch It’s a Wonderful Life one last time with him. I’m grateful for the beauty and the difficulty of that. I’m grateful that I’ve learned to say, “This year was really hard, Lord. Help me to know Your closeness as I begin again.”
Look forward with hope.
Remember the words from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.” 2017 may have been hard, yes, but in a few days we begin anew. What are your hopes? Whisper them to our Lord. And if you are too weary to hope, ask Him to plant His hopes for you in your heart for the new year.
The Fruit of Gratitude is Hope
Sisters, I know exceedingly well how hard it is to practice gratitude at year’s end. The truth is we won’t ever receive the gift that George Bailey received; that is, to know this side of heaven the impression our presence has on the world. But we will see the gifts of grace and mercy abound as signs of His love for us.
As this year draws to a close, I will yet again watch It’s a Wonderful Life in memory of my dad. As George Bailey discovered the gifts of broken banisters, and Zuzu’s petals, and the gift of friendship within his town of Bedford Falls, I’ll be thinking about the the parallels in my own life and hope that I might see them with greater attentiveness.
As you reflect on your own gratitude for 2017 (and perhaps your own viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life), I simply want to offer you the reminder, as angel Clarence did for George, that your presence, your life, is a sheer gift. The Lord sees you, cherishes you, upholds you, and calls you His own. Know, too, that the Blessed is She team is grateful for you and grateful that you are here, reading this now, as we prepare to welcome the new year together. May we all find, like George Bailey did, that there is much to be grateful for.
What’s a small thing for which you are most grateful?
Karen Schultz hails from the Land of 10,000 lakes, where she is often found in or near one of them. As a doula, lactation educator, and FertilityCare Practitioner, she finds joy in helping women to embrace the gift of their bodies. Downtime is found in quiet adoration chapels, farmers markets and gardens, listening to bluegrass music, and embracing the diversity of Minnesota’s seasons. You can find out more about her here.